I have to admit that prior to interviewing Kirk Whalum I wasn’t familiar with his music, but after spending a couple days getting to know him through the jazziest pitches and notes I loved what I found. I became a fan. My musical pallet expanded and my appreciation for diversity in sound grew. I learned so much from my conversation with Kirk and his evolution as an artist. Check out our dialog below and pick up a few nuggets yourself.
What I love about your music and your story is that there is so much purpose and intention behind it. Where does that come from and when did it start?
Thank you. That is the thing. I’m speaking a language when I play music. I’m not just playing scales and playing something clever and kind of cool that another musician would hear and say “that’s clever and cool”. I’m speaking a language and I had to be taught that. I want people to be impacted. I can’t help myself because a big part of who I am is a minister and a bearer of the blood of Christ. It’s a matter of finding a way to be that person in the market place and in a way where people who are not Christians can wrap their heads around it and say that’s really great.
I realized this when my mentor, the great Arnett Cobb, listened to me play for him and he cut me off and said “Ok, that’s enough. You’re playing a lot of notes, but you ain’t saying a damn thing.” It hurt my feelings, man. I was 20 years old and I was like what is he talking about.
Everybody at church talked about how good I am. He must be wrong. But what he was saying though is that it’s not about you impressing people, it’s about impacting them. To do that you have to be saying something, and technically God is the one who gives you that something to say.
Dr. King was very influential to the development of Humanité. Tell me about your connection with him and why it was important to continue his message of “The Beloved Community” through song?
I have to be frank and say that it took the film maker Jim Heynen interviewing me about my documentary, listening to me as I was riffing about the light they attempted to shut off that Martin was here to talk about…the sanitation workers who were deserving of his help, but more importantly I would say he was talking about them and everybody who is poor needlessly, “the beloved community”. All of us. He heard me talking about this, Jim Heynen, and it was like a light bulb went off for him and he said “yup, that’s it. Thats actually what this is all about”.
So he went to start editing and putting everything together. He was like a mad man. He came back and said “man you’re probably not gonna recognize this, but just watch it.” And sure enough…I was in tears. I didn’t even think about the revelation he would have hearing a lot of this for the first time as a white man because I lived it.
He made the connection between what I doing with Humanité and what Martin was teaching.
In your trailer a lot of the contributors talked about their struggle and how they infused that in the music. What is it about tragedy and pain that creates some of the best and influential moments in music?
Right. I think that the creative process can kind of roll along without that deep inspiration. That deep personal connection and empathy. It can roll along. We hear a lot of music and will say that person wrote a good song and made good bank…I’m gonna try and write a song like that and it became competition. Trying to out do each other.
But really there is an aspect of it that I think is deeply troubling and that’s that it seems to be that the motivation of a lot that music was empty and it wasn’t deeply connected to something that is universal and that is authentic and something that really affects the lives of people or represents the struggle of people.
So that was important to me to go there and I don’t regret it at all.
Music is the language that communicates across borders. Music can break and enter into a person’s soul,” said Kirk. “The difference is that she is not there to take, she’s there to give, to leave something when she goes. - Kirk Whalum
When was that first time you remember music giving to you? What has music left you?
Growing up in church you get that as a regular diet. I remember recently when I saw the documentary of the making of the Aretha Franklin gospel record…man it took me back because I am old enough to where I remember when that record came out and I was singing in the choir at my dad’s church. It was pivotal. We sang every song on that record and I was deeply impacted by that music because the music is connected to this sacred love. This vertical love between the one who is perfect and the rest of us.
And so that connection is so powerful and it’s hard to get anything any deeper than that. But for me, I just began to wonder if that’s also possible for music that’s not “sacred”, not gospel. And I just always believed that it was.
I noticed you referred to music as a woman. How’d you establish that feminine connection or presence?
God is above gender too. God reveals God’s self to us as father, but also as mother. In scripture and in the relationship with our mothers…man the nurturing of God and all these other qualities that are sort of feminine or female qualities. I hear more of that in music. That empathetic side, that nurturing, understanding and patient side of the mother; it’s all in there.
In French the word music is a feminine word and the same in Spanish.
You’ve collaborated with so many talented musicians and vocalists from all over the world to create Humanité. With everyone’s approach and interpretation of music being different, were there any collaborative moments in session that surprised you or were your favorite?
Yes, one was with Asa, a Nigerian artist that lives in Paris. I actually have a deep connection to Paris. When I heard her in Lagos she blew me away. There was a line wrapped around the block of 5000 people waiting on every breath that she took, let along every lyric that she sang. And they knew every lyric. I had never heard of her, but I finally caught up with Asa and we started talking about her being on my record. But then I would send her an idea and she’d be on the road and say she’d get back to it, but never could. So now the session is coming up and I’m going to Paris to record a song that we have not written yet. I was little nervous, but I had a feeling that it would end well. Jazz is just like that. Jump and the net will appear. That’s what we do when we improvise.
So I go over there and within 4 hours we had a song that was complete.
Speaking of collaborations, you’ve also collaborated with the Olive Tree Bible App. How did that come about and what inspired you to lend your voice to narrate the bible?
Years ago I was looking for what we use to call a bible on tape to listen to as I jogged. I came upon one that was called ‘Bible In A Year’ and it was by this random Catholic guy who read the bible. So I just followed along and listened to the bible and it took me a year.
Every time I would mention the bible podcast my wife would say “I keep thinking you’re saying the bible in your ear”. So I thought, man, that’s actually a good title for a podcast and I’m going to redo the bible and I’m gonna call it ‘The Bible In Your Ear’. There are a lot of people who are not interested in reading the bible, but maybe if I read it to them they might listen because they like my music.
And sure enough, we got hundreds and thousands of people tracking along.
What are you hoping Humanité accomplishes? What’s the goal?
I want people to have that aha moment with me because many people won’t be able to travel to these places that I get to go to on a regular basis. But, I want them to experience what it’s like to recognize and to be blown away by this paradox of how incredibly unique and diverse every musical expression is in all these different places and in all these individuals, but how much alike we are. That we’re the same. We’re telling the same story contextualize in our own unique culture.
For more information on Kirk Whalum and Humanité visit follow him on social media @KirkWhalum and visit www.kirkwhalum.com